One Good Turn
Here in the Rocky Mountain West—as elsewhere, no doubt—ski areas are often inexorably linked to either the founder of the resort’s ski school or a ski school director of unusually long tenure. The Jackson Hole Mountain Resort at Teton Village will always be connected with the name Pepi Stiegler. Alta, Utah, is rarely mentioned by veteran powder hounds without a nod to Alf Engen. (Engen passed on in 1997, but this writer fondly recalls on numerous occasions back in the early seventies seeing him skiing with his friend, the world-renowned traveler and broadcaster Lowell Thomas.)
While Provo, Utah, native Junior Bounous taught for lengthy gigs both at Alta and at Sugar Bowl in California—and is currently skiing at Utah’s Snowbird—many remember him for the years he ran the ski school at Provo Canyon’s Timphaven, which became Sundance after Robert Redford acquired it.
Similarly, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who spent time at Grand Targhee Resort in its first three decades and doesn’t recall the name, face, and graceful ski technique of Gene Palmer. Over the past eight years, as an instructor at Targhee, I’ve had the privilege of spending more time skiing with Palmer than probably with any other person (though my wife Wynne Ann would run a close second). I owe him an awful lot for the hundreds of ski lessons, as well as for his friendship.
A native of nearby Rexburg, Palmer had a successful racing career as a youth, winning more than his share of competitions at the old Bear Gulch Ski Basin east of Ashton. (Interestingly, Alf Engen laid out the first runs at Bear Gulch, which was the second ski area to open in Idaho, Sun Valley being the first. Bear Gulch closed in the 1980s.)
Palmer’s initial association with Grand Targhee was as a member of its original board of directors. But once the resort opened on December 26, 1969, he resigned from the board and took on the job of running the ski school as a concessionaire. Almost from the get-go, Palmer recalls, Targhee struggled financially. “Bob Blank was the first general manager,” he says, “and he tried as hard as he could to make it a success. Back then, there was simply no money to be had.”
In 1971, the resort took over direct operation of the ski school, with Palmer serving as the director.
Mark Hanson has been the Targhee Ski School director for the past decade. It doesn’t take much urging to get him to talk about Gene Palmer. “You know, it’s a real gift for me to have an icon here like Gene,” Hanson says. “He is such a great supporter. Gene has always let me know he is behind me. I consider him a dear friend. There is not a day goes by during the season where somebody doesn’t come into the ski school and ask about him.
“If I had to come up with a single word to describe Gene and his attitude towards our sport, as well as our resort, it’s pretty simple: passion.”
Alice Williamson, whose relationship with Palmer goes back over four decades—and includes many years teaching for him—echoes the same sentiment. “Gene has a passion for teaching which I’ve rarely seen [in others],” she says. “With that, however, I never once saw him put anybody down, no matter how tough a day they were having. I always remember him saying, ‘Okay, well now try this.’”
Palmer also is a past president of the Professional Ski Instructors of America,
Intermountain Division (PSIA-I), a
history-making role that got him inducted into the Utah Ski Archives at the
University of Utah’s Marriott Library. Gene’s friendships and relationships within PSIA are as deep as they are
Nancy Kronthaler is a longtime Snowbird instructor and the current PSIA-I vice president of communications. “I first met Gene twenty-five years ago,” she says, “on a sunny spring day at Snowbird, where he was trying to find the ‘big boys,’ Junior Bounous and Jerry Warren. Gene and I hopped the tram and began a run down Great Scott in perfect springtime corn conditions. Gene made his first turn and clicked out of both skis. When he finally stopped rolling, I said, ‘I bet you’re glad you aren’t with the “big boys” now!’ Since then, we have shared many laughs and some of the best skiing this world has to offer. Gene is truly my mentor and a wonderful supporter.”
Palmer benefited from early contact with some very strong skiers. “Mel Hammond [who still lives in Driggs] was one of my earliest mentors,” he says. “In those days, there was a rope tow up on Teton Pass, and Mel, myself, and others
would go up there and practice in the pre-season. Mel progressed to the level of supervisor in the Sun Valley Ski School. Through Mel, I was exposed to the skiing and philosophies of the world’s best at that time—fellows like Austria’s Christian Pravda and Norway’s inimitable Stein Eriksen.”
Palmer was fortunate to be able to
attend a number of Sun Valley’s ski
school symposiums each year. “In the
early seventies, the Sun Valley Ski School was perhaps the premier program in America,” he says. “The Austrian Sigi Engel ran it, and—as did most of the Austrians—he ran a very tight ship. One of the things that impressed me
was the iron-clad uniformity that permeated their entire organization, and the precision with which they performed. The advantage, of course, was that people would be learning essentially the same movements no matter who they worked with from our ski school.
“The Austrians were wound pretty tight,” Palmer recalls. “I thought, well, Sigi is one of the very best in the world, and if he runs that tight of a ship, that’s the guy I’m going to be. [As a result], I was pretty rigid in the early years. That’s why I made my guys and gals ‘clinic’ so much. Many days we had few lessons. If we weren’t working with clients, I had ’em out doing clinics, learning, improving. In those early days, if I couldn’t pay them, I could at least turn them into darned good skiers!”
But Palmer acknowledges loosening up some as his circle of mentors grew. “After meeting and skiing more with fellows like Alf Engen, Junior Bounous, Jerry Warren, P.J. Jones, and other PSIA instructors, I learned to relax a bit,” he says. “While the Austrians were the driving force that initially established good skiing here in America, I learned from both Alf and Junior that you could still accomplish something with a smile and [have] a bit of fun, as well. I don’t know, maybe I got a little easier to deal with once I realized that.”
A smile illuminates Gene’s face as he reminisces about his longtime friend Pepi Stiegler, the famous Austrian racer who ran the Jackson Hole Ski School for so many years.
“In around 1972, Pepi … invited me over to ski at the Village in Jackson Hole. He had already been there for ten years, since the inception of the Jackson Hole Ski Resort. I’d gotten to know Pepi a bit, as we were [at] neighboring resorts. I brought along my ‘lieutenant,’ Gary ‘Paco’ Summers, who was my assistant director. Pepi didn’t say a lot that morning, but he took us directly to Corbet’s Couloir for our first run. Paco looked at me and said, ‘Do we have to ski that thing?’” (Corbet’s Couloir is a notoriously steep and narrow chute that USA Today called “America’s scariest ski slope.” It’s believed to have been first skied in 1967.)
I thought a moment, and said, “Well, I guess we do, if we’re to have any credibility around this place. We both jumped in and skied it—and Pepi has been a dear friend ever since. Both Pepi and his brother Peter are truly class acts.”
“Pepi seemed a bit standoffish that morning,” adds Summers. “You know? The minute we came out of Corbet’s, still upright, he got a lot friendlier.”
“Jerry Warren, in particular, taught me so much about the depth of truly good skiing,” Palmer says. “Jerry and P.J. [Jones] were both members of the U.S. Demo team, and Jerry later became the coach of the demo team for a number of years. Jerry and I were co-vice presidents of education for the Intermountain
Division. To this day, Jerry remains a real inspiration to me.
“Junior [Bounous] is also a terrific guy. Very low key, but a terrific technician. He was/is one of the sport’s great innovators. Between Junior and Jerry, when they were both at Snowbird, you had the whole package. Junior was as good as it gets on teaching somebody how to slip a ski, and Jerry was as equally proficient at teaching edging.”
Jerry Warren passed his “full cert” test at Grand Targhee in the late 1970s. “We had some really big tree wells that year,” Palmer says, “and just for fun, I dumped him into one. Man, did I pay for that! Later, at Snowbird, Jerry took me out and completely ruined me. My wife had to drive home, I was so stoved up.”
Several things come to mind when I reflect on the many hours I’ve spent skiing with Gene Palmer. While it’s true that his skiing
expertise has helped me immeasurably, I know I’ve also been of benefit to him. Palmer is a man born to teach alpine skiing, and I’ve provided much of the grist needed for his mill—because I needed a lot of teaching!
Secondly, his grasp of the fundamentals and physics of skiing may be unsurpassed by anyone I’ve met. Palmer taught physics as a younger man, and the combination of his grasp of science and knowing how it applies to bending a ski represents a bottomless source of alpine wisdom.
Knowledge of skiing, of course, is incomplete without the capacity to analyze physical movement. More than one time I would be off either teaching or free-skiing, and later Palmer would casually mention he had seen me earlier in the day. Depending on what he saw, he would either congratulate me for having integrated a particular movement, or
gently mention something he thought might need a little attention. I swear, sometimes I think that man could pick the wings off a gnat at two hundred yards!
Finally, and what I find most amazing, is the fact that he feels he is learning something new every single day he skis with his old buddies. I cannot remember the number of late evening phone calls I’ve received from Palmer following his return from Alta or Snowbird, after skiing with pals like Carl Boyer or Nancy Kronthaler.
It usually starts something like this: “Man, are you going to be up there [at Targhee] tomorrow? You should see what I picked up the last two days!” It astounds me that a man of so many years of experience with the very best is still excited about learning more, about improving his own skiing, almost every day.
Now, our relationship isn’t always smooth. Three years ago Palmer, Wynne Ann, and I went over to ski at Sun Valley for a couple of days. It’s nice to be able to break away for a few days to another
resort, where all we instructors have to do is ski and not be concerned over lesson line-up, clients, and so forth.
We were on the run known as Flying Squirrel, and, as usual, Palmer was teaching. I guess I have a mental overload trigger, which somehow shows on my face. After all these years, he is smart enough to sense when that happens, at which point he politely backs off. This was one of those moments, and he quickly said, “You know what, this is overload for you, isn’t it? We came up here to just ski, didn’t we? Why don’t I zip it, and we’ll do just that.”
I looked at him and said, “You know something, Palmer? You are incapable of skiing without teaching, even for ten yards! He shook his head and replied that we should just go and enjoy ourselves for the rest of the morning. He pushed off, began to ski, and—honestly—hadn’t gone nine yards when he turned and said, “Just one more thing …”
I smiled and said, “Do you see, Gene? I rest my case.” Boy, it felt good to grab a win from him—just once.